As I was making my way out of the theater after seeing Django Unchained (2012, directed by Quentin Tarantino), I overheard a woman ask her companion: "Why did he shoot the sister?" Clearly, this was beyond the pale of chivalry in her mind, a gratuitous act of violence, perhaps even "reverse racism." I don't think I could have explained to her why Django might want to kill that character, why it might even be appropriate in context. I doubt she would understand me.
Django Unchained is a film I'm uncomfortable with. I don't know that I can write about it without stumbling over my own biases and privileges and cinematic appetites. I'll try, but I'm fallible and I'm probably going to screw it up. My apologies for this in advance.
Hollywood has never dealt fairly with the problem of slavery. Slavery and racism are the central problems of American history even unto the present day, and as they have done with all other aspects of American history, Hollywood has mythologized it in such a way to feed the American hubris of being the greatest nation on Earth, the mansion on the hill to which other nations look with envy and aspiration. Nevermind that the United States is a nation carved out by genocide and built by slaves. The slaves, in classic Hollywood, are happy helpmates. The negro, a natural servant class, a backdrop for the problems of white folk. The foundational film of the American cinema is D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, after all, a film that lionized the Klu Klux Klan. So thoroughly has this bullshit taken root in the American consciousness that you can still hear racist politicians on the American right cluelessly bleating that black people were better off under slavery than they are now.
This is the first context for Django Unchained. It's metacinema that is acutely aware of the sorry history of race in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking.
The second context is exploitation filmmaking, an idiom from which Quentin Tarantino has derived most of his cinematic anima. I've called Tarantino a thieving magpie in the past, and Tarantino's films--particularly the Kill Bill diptych--have sometimes lapsed into pop eating itself. Tarantino is an appropriator. One of the things he has consistently appropriated is the n-word, something he occasionally uses like he's entitled to it (he's not). This is the director's least admirable quality. But something odd happens to both of these impulses in Django Unchained. Tarantino--rightly, I think--identifies exploitation cinema as the only sector of filmmaking that has ever confronted the horrors of racism and slavery on their own terms. However nasty they may be, films like Goodbye Uncle Tom or Mandingo present a very different American South than Gone With the Wind or Song of the South. These are films that inspire horror, as any honest film about slavery should. Tarantino conflates these kinds of films with black rage films like Superfly or Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, films that are the first stirrings of black filmmakers giving the finger to the construction of race in Hollywood. It's unfortunate that these films are considered to be exploitation, given that the best of them were practically the only place black filmmakers were able to find expression in the 1970s in a way that could be heard by a mass audience (by contrast, Charles Burnett's art house masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, went unreleased for thirty years). Tarantino interprets all of this through the lens of European Westerns, but his choice of role models is shrewd. Sergio Corbucci's original, overtly Marxist Django is itself a harsh view of the racism inherent in the myth of Manifest Destiny, with scenes of hooded bandits and their depredations intended as a stark rebuke to Griffith's clansmen. The use of the n-word in Django Unchained becomes weaponized. It's meaningful rather than casual, a symptom of a larger sickness that the film plunges into deeper and deeper as its running time gets late.
The choice of the Western is shrewd, too, in one other respect: the Western hero is the iconic image of masculine heroism in American film. We're talking John Wayne and James Stewart and Randolph Scott and Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston and Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. It's important, I think, for the universe of this film and for the point it wants to make about American film and America in general that a black man step into the role of the Western hero. This has a twofold purpose: first, it's a matter of representation. While I'm not going to accuse this film of realism, there were plenty of black cowboys in the real west. The absence of strong black men as heroes in Western films is glaring. Second, it deconstructs the image of the Western hero. By filling the void, it calls attention to the void in the first place. Django is larger than life. Most black men in movies are not larger than life.
The story in Django Unchained is simple enough: Bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is searching for three criminals with a price on their heads. When last seen, the three were working as overseers on a Texas plantation, and the only person who knows what they look like is the incorrigible runaway slave, Django. Schultz contrives to purchase Django, and promises to free him once Django leads him to the Speck brothers. This, Django does, and in doing so demonstrates an aptitude for the bounty hunting trade. Together, they find the Specks on the plantation of Big Daddy, who doesn't take kindly to an uppity negro riding onto his plantation on a horse and killing white folks. He organizes a lynching party--hoods and everything-- to take out Schultz and Django, but it ends badly for them all. Schultz and Django know their business. They are dangerous men. Upon freeing him, Schultz takes Django on as a partner and apprentice, and promises to aid Django in his quest to find and free his wife. His wife, Broomhilda, also branded as a runaway, has been sold to one Calvin Candie, who trades in mandingo fighters. Schultz and Django pose as slavers, seeking mandigo fighters of their own, as cover for doing business with Candie. Candie's plantation estate, called "Candie Land", is lorded over by trackers who delight in rounding up unruly slaves, and by Stephen, the head house slave, who is in all things his master's man. Things go disastrously awry at Candie Land, and soon Schultz and Django are at the center of a bloodbath...
I wish this hadn't been made by a white filmmaker, particularly one who has a dicey history with race in his films, but I'm not sorry it was made by a filmmaker as naturally gifted as Tarantino. Say what you like about Tarantino's post-modern noodling, he knows how to move a camera and tell a story and this is as assured a film as he's ever made. As a film, this is head and shoulders above similar blaxploitation revivals by black filmmakers (The Hughes Brothers' Dead Presidents or John Singleton's remake of Shaft, for instance). I'll console myself on this point with the fact that film is a collaborative medium and some of Tarantino's key collaborators on this film are producer Reginald Hudlin and stars Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, and Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson always does his best work with Tarantino, and his seething Uncle Tom house slave in this movie is a bundle of self-loathing. He's the very picture of the oppressed enabling their own oppression and is perhaps the most monstrous example of what slavery actually does to those living under its lash. Foxx, for his part, is a charismatic hero who is required to carry every scene that he's in--which is almost every scene in the film. Foxx is a true movie star, in so far as he has the force of presence and the acting chops to carry this off with aplomb. But this is all probably disingenuous on my part, though, because Tarantino is undoubtedly the author of this movie. And, to be honest, I don't trust him with the subject matter and I don't trust myself to interpret what's onscreen here. But what the hell, eh?
It's tempting to view Django Unchained as a companion piece to Inglourioius Basterds. That film provides a revenge fantasy in which the Jews vent their oppression on the Nazi high command. The metacinematic lesson to be taken away from Basterds is that you should not get your history from the movies, because the movies lie, sometimes outrageously. I don't believe that that's what Django is about. I think, the opposite is true. Django is not history. It's genre. It's a movie idiom, but through that idiom, it contrives to tell uncomfortable truths. Central to this is a deep horror at slavery itself, which it communicates in ways both outrageous and subtle. I've been seeing this film tied to the dialogue about slavery in Spielberg's Lincoln. There's something to that, but here's the difference: the horror of slavery in Lincoln is communicated only in old glass photographs of slaves whose backs are mutilated from the scars of whippings. Spielberg puts a bit of distance between the institution of slavery and the white men who abolish it. Lincoln still buys into the myths of America. Django Unchained puts those scars on the back of its hero, right in the face of the audience. To make the point even more explicit, we see an escaped slave torn apart by dogs, we see two slaves made to fight each other to the death, we see a runaway slave put in a metal box to bake in the sun, we see Django hung up like a hog for castration. No distance. No escaping the horror.
The conflagration at the end of the film is almost a catharsis, particularly the very last scene in which the film ends on Django getting his horse to dance for the woman he loves. This sort of small gesture of humankindness and romance is unthinkable before the massacre. It's inevitable afterward.
I'm a little bit uncomfortable with the way this plays its white characters, though. Don Johnson's Big Daddy and his pack of clansmen are cartoons. Their buffoonery tends to trivialize how dangerous these people are. And Calvin Candie is played so broadly by Leonardo DiCaprio that he almost becomes the mustachioed villain in a melodrama, an n-th generation descendant of Simon LeGree. He's hard to take seriously. Other, more minor characters seem like walk-ons from Blazing Saddles (perhaps intentionally). Christopher Waltz's King Schultz is a different matter. He's a necessary character, a white man who recoils from the horror of slavery. That he's a European is telling, because Americans themselves are bad at self-reflection. He's Alexis de Tocqueville in bounty hunter drag.
Which still leaves the question of why Django shot Calvin Candie's sister. She was no immediate threat to him. She is, rather, the institution of white supremacy at its most banal. Most of the people who benefit from a white supremacist hegemony may never commit an overt act of racism or think a racist thought, but that doesn't mean they don't benefit from it. My ancestors are Irish; they came to the United States in the early twentieth century and never participated in the institution of slavery. While I'm aware of the fact that the Irish haven't always been considered "white" by the racist know-nothings of the 19th century, they were considered white in the 20th. By being white, I benefit from the color of my skin. I don't worry that I'll be targeted by police because of race. I don't worry that I'll be passed over for promotion or denied a job at all because of race. These are privileges that are granted to me because of slavery and racism and their lingering echoes in the American experience. The shooting of Calvin Candie's sister is a blow against this. She's privileged and spoiled and racist and she has no real clue that the life she lives is built on a foundation of human misery. This is why Django shoots her.